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#1 Best in TV Animation: The Simpsons

The_Simpsons_LogoCould it really be another? There have been funnier shows, better looking ones, and shows with better stories to tell, but it’s hard to argue against the show that made prime time animation a thing and has lasted over 25 years. The Simpsons are an American institution at this point. There are people in their twenties who have never had a year of their life pass by without a new season of The Simpsons. That’s pretty incredible. And say what you will about the quality of the show in recent times, there’s still a large body of work that’s among television’s best.

Let me actually start with the argument against The Simpsons being number one. Really, that argument boils down to the show not being very good for the last ten or fifteen years. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fan of the show willing to argue that the best is happening right now. The general consensus seems to be that the show’s peak was probably seasons two through seven. Seasons eight through twelve have their moments, and from there the show has been in a downward spiral of re-used plot devices and poor gags. After all, how many times have Homer and Marge split-up during an episode only to patch things up in the end? Or how often has Bart pulled some elaborate prank only to feel remorseful after the fact? For me, the best era of The Simpsons probably ended with the season nine premiere, “The City of New York vs Homer Simpson.” It was a promising start to what ended up being a mostly mediocre season. I’d argue though that The Simpsons ever since has mostly remained mediocre and has never produced a truly awful season. Though I concede one should feel fortunate if there’s at least one memorable episode per year that isn’t a Treehouse of Horror installment.

The first family of animation: Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart.

The first family of animation: Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart.

Even if I were to go so far as to say that The Simpsons has been bad since season nine, that’s still nearly two-hundred episodes of quality prior to that. Such an episode total dwarfs almost every other series on this list with the only comparable being South Park (which has had its own peaks and valleys over the years). When The Simpsons was operating at its best it was sharp, funny, satirical, but with enough heart to make viewers care about the characters. It operated as a pretty typical sitcom, but one willing to take advantage of the animation medium. Characters never had to age and the town of Springfield could be filled with hundreds of characters without the need to expand the cast.

What made The Simpsons a hit was its edgier brand of humor when compared with other sitcoms. The Simpson family was dysfunctional. Bart and Homer were always at odds with Homer being a rather poor example for the kids. They weren’t as hopeless as Fox’s other family, The Bundys, but they certainly weren’t The Waltons (much to the dismay of then President George H.W. Bush). Bart dominated the early episodes, often getting into trouble and just being a general delinquent. Overtime, Homer moved more and more into the spotlight as his I.Q. seemingly deteriorated more and more each season. Lisa and Marge have mostly served in a supporting role with each representing a foil for the male members of the family. Often once or twice per season one of the ladies would assume a starring role. The supporting cast became robust and episodes would even follow someone from Springfield with The Simpsons serving in a supporting role. It’s hard to pick a best character from outside the family because there are just too many to choose from. The miserly Mr. Burns is so good as the boss character/villain of the series (boss as in Homer’s boss, not video game boss, though he did serve in that role too). Krusty is well known as Springfield’s resident celebrity as is the cartoon duo Itchy and Scratchy. Moe, Barney, Troy McClure (voiced by the late, great, Phil Hartman), Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and on and on it goes. I doubt there’s ever been a larger cast in the history of television.

The cast is positively ginormous.

The cast is positively ginormous.

Every cartoon needs its own look, and visually, the series has always been distinct with its yellow skin-toned characters and circular eyes. Everyone sports three fingers and a thumb and wears the same clothes every day. The quality of the animation was a bit crude in the early going with some of the colors in the first season looking washed-out. As the series became a success, more and more money was tossed its way and the quality of the animation has steadily risen each year. In fact, that’s one thing the current episodes can boast over the classics: better animation. The show is often bright, but not distractingly so, with a lot of Springfield often appearing kind of run down. The main theme of the show was composed by Danny Elfman and is about as well-known as any other television theme. Shockingly, Fox has been able to keep the same vocal talent onboard over the years, though it hasn’t always been easy. There was a time when it appeared as if the rising costs of production due to raises for the cast would eventually kill the series, but now that seems unlikely. Everyone is past their career prime at this point and there’s less of a call for them to leave the show to pursue something else. They’re also all nearing or beyond retirement age and I imagine The Simpsons is a nice source of income they can rely on now. They’re also not stupid and know the show has gone past its peak so they’re unlikely to demand significant raises going forward, unless they collectively all decide they don’t really want to continue working on the show and demand Fox make them an offer they can’t refuse. It must be noted though that The Simpsons hasn’t avoided some tragedy over the years (it would be almost impossible for it to considering how long it’s been on) losing two popular talents. Phil Hartmen, who voiced many supporting roles, was murdered in 1998 while Marcia Wallace, voice of Bart’s hard-luck teacher Mrs. Krabappel, passed away in 2013. Both actors had their respective characters retired upon their death.

A neat graphic of the principal voice talent and the recurring characters they voice.

A neat graphic of the principal voice talent and the recurring characters they voice.

Just as it’s hard to pick a favorite character, it’s hard to pick a favorite episode or even season. The show was so good and so consistent in the early 90’s that it seemed to turn out a classic every week. “The Telltale Head” from season one is arguably the show’s first classic, along with the very first episode “Simpsons Roasting on an Open-Fire,” which is still the show’s best Christmas episode. “Bart the Daredevil” is another classic with an iconic moment even referenced in The Simpsons Movie. “Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment,” “Bart the Murderer,” “Flaming Moe’s,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Marge vs The Monorail,” “I Love Lisa,” “The Last Temptation of Homer” and so many more. It truly is a daunting task to list the best of the best. Just coming up with a list of the best Halloween specials is hard (which The Simpsons must have a record for most Halloween episodes, easily)!

The Simpsons has been on television for so long that its legacy is likely going to be forever linked to its longevity. It has almost surpassed the show’s reputation for just being a damn good TV show. And how long will it go on? Who knows? The natural assumption would be 600 episodes, or maybe a 30th season, but it’s possible the show just goes on and on until someone too important decides to leave. It likely won’t go quietly as I imagine Fox would not allow the show to just end without making a big deal out of it, and they should. The show deserves as much. If it weren’t for The Simpsons it’s unclear what the landscape for adult cartoons would be. Sure, The Flintstones came first, but The Flintstones were not as nearly as impactful. While The Simpsons embraced the animated form, The Flintstones tried to be a typical sitcom that just happened to be animated. I may not watch The Simpsons on a weekly basis anymore, and really have not since the nineties ended. I still do not look forward to the day when The Simpsons has ended. It may no longer be the best show on television, but I still think the world is a better place with The Simpsons on at 8 PM every Sunday.


Lego Simpsons: The Kwik-E-Mart and Mini Figures Series 2

IMG_0445Last year, Lego released its first set and series of mini figures styled after The Simpsons, the animated institution that has anchored Fox’s Sunday Night lineup longer than Justin Bieber’s been alive. Debate the merits of the program’s more recent seasons all you want, but it couldn’t diminish my curiosity for a set of Legos based on the venerable series. The first set, predictably, was the home of the Simpsons while series one of the mini figures focused on most of the key characters from the show. Because the cast is so large, and the world so developed, there was already instant demand for a series two and Lego has delivered. And for the second construction set Lego tabbed Springfield’s most iconic convenience store:  The Kwik-E-Mart.

A few months ago I blogged on the subject of a series two for Lego and concluded that the Kwik-E-Mart was the most likely follow-up set. The only location that could possibly rival it is Moe’s Tavern, but Lego’s anti-alcohol policy makes that one a no-go right from the start. The Kwik-E-Mart may seem like a smaller set when compared with the Simpsons’ house, but Lego managed to stuff almost as many bricks into it as it did for the house, due in large part to all of the goods being peddled by Apu and his corporate masters. The set retails in the US for the same $200 the house retailed for, which felt high but wasn’t enough of a deterrent to keep me from purchasing it. In hindsight, it’s probably still too high but I think I actually like this one more than the Simpsons’ house, and I’ll tell you why.

imageThe Kwik-E-Mart is fairly large when compared with the house. It’s only one story high but the floorplan is more square and deeper than the house. It too features hinged portions to open it up for viewing/play and the roof lifts off for easy access to the store’s innards. Two of the store’s walls are lined with freezers, one of which features a decal of Frostillicus, and their construction is creative and adds depth. There’s a teeny, tiny, backroom that’s not true to the actual layout of the store, but I appreciate the fact that Lego at least attempted to include it. The other walls are lined with a cash machine, arcade games, and a coffee area. The central desk features a hot dog heater and a donut rack. Behind the desk is the all important Squishee machine and display cases come with copies of Angry Dad and other prints recognizable to Simpsons fanatics. All of the little details, like the puddle of Squishee on the floor or the different levels of the fruit punch and lemonade coolers are creative and extremely well done. Some of the aisle goods are a bit bland, but they’re the exception. Much of the detail of the freezer goods is almost wasted considering how unnoticeable it is and I love that Lego included a lone hot dog wedged between the counters. Adjacent to the store is a dumpster area and the roof features a crude representation of Apu’s garden. It may not come close to resembling the television garden, but it’s great that Lego included it.

A familiar site for Apu.

A familiar site for Apu.

The set comes packed with five mini figures:  Apu, Homer, Marge, Bart, Chief Wiggum, and Snake. Of the five, only Snake is exclusive to the set. Apu and Wiggum feature new outfits with Apu in clerk attire and Wiggum in a donut-stained suit. Homer, Marge, and Bart are essentially the same figures released in wave one of last year’s mini figure line. I understand that Lego likely feels compelled to include members of the Simpsons clan in any set it does, but it could have done something to make these three feel a little special. Marge and Bart could have had screen-printed jackets and Homer could have come with the giant hat he wore to spy on Apu for the local investigative news report. Or he could have been clothed in his clerk attire from the episode he took a part-time job at the Kwik-E-Mart. At any rate, it wouldn’t have required much effort to make these three figures unique but Lego opted not to. Also included is a squad car for Wiggum that can actually fit both he and Snake inside it. Accessories-wise, Lego doesn’t really do guns but there is a piece in the set that certainly resembles a gun (pictured) that Snake can utilize. It’s the same piece that’s also used to create Bart’s spray-paint. Marge has a basket, and Wiggum has some handcuffs. Nothing exciting, but certainly appropriate. The store has the better accessories, including a better looking Squishee cup (when compared with the coffee-like cup the mini-figure of Apu came with) and tiny cans of buzz cola.

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It’s like kissing a peanut!

The Kwik-E-Mart, minor nitpicks aside, is a success for Lego and fans of the Simpsons. As for series two of the mini figures, it’s somewhat a success but not as obviously so. First, let’s talk about the bad. As expected, each member of the family gets another figure. For Homer, Marge and Lisa, they’re given more formal attire. For Homer and Marge it’s their date attire we see from time to time while Lisa is wearing the dress we most often see her wearing when the family attends church. Bart is dressed as his alter ego Bartman, which was expected. Joining him is Milhouse as Fall-Out Boy. I don’t think anyone was clamoring for another edition of Milhouse, but at least he pairs well with Bartman. Maggie is also back but this time she’s exactly the same as she was in series one. This is unacceptable. Lego could have at least put her in her white onesie she sometimes wears or her starfish snow suit. Unfortunately, Maggie comes packed with Santa’s Little Helper (who really should have been included with the house last year) so fans who want to have a complete Simpsons’ family will have to pick her up again (Lisa comes with Snowball). The other members of the wave include some familiar faces: Willie, Professor Frink, Dr. Hibbert, Pattie, Selma, Smithers, Hans Moleman, Martin, Comic Book Guy, and Mrs. Krabappel.  It’s easy to second-guess Lego here as should we really have received a Frink before a Skinner? Dr. Hibbert before Sideshow Bob? Complaints about the selection aside, most of the new characters look great. My only gripes there are with Hibbert and Frink’s lab coats, which are printed on instead of being actual pieces. Comic Book Guy also, like Wiggum from last year, appears too thin. I wish Lego would do something to make the really obese characters stand-out as such, but it’s apparent they’re not going to do that. The included accessories for each character make sense, with the Simpsons’ pets being the obvious stand-outs. Willie probably should have come with a rake, and Hans a cane, but that’s no great omission.

Like all of Lego’s mini figures, these are released in blind bags. Those willing to swallow their pride and hang out by the display case feeling-up the bags should have little trouble in coming away with a complete set with minimal doubles. I was hasty in my first attempt and mistook a Selma for a Pattie, a Hans for Martin, and a couple other screw-ups. I ended up keeping one double, the Hans, and made use of the many Barts that have been released by swapping heads and depicting Hans as he appeared in the episode “Burns’ Heir,” when he briefly joined the Simpsons.

The two sets side by side.

The two sets side by side.

In the end, this wave of figures and the Kwik-E-Mart are fun and rewarding for longtime fans. They also accomplish the goal of making fans hungry for a series three. There are numerous essential characters that have yet to be featured and still plenty of Homer and Bart variants that Lego could fall-back on. As for a third set, Springfield Elementary seems like a logical resting point, though some sacrifices would have to be made to keep it in scope with both the house and Kwik-E-Mart in terms of the amount of bricks. Other locations that could be featured are The Android’s Dungeon and Krusty Burger. Series one sold well, and as far as I know series two has continued that trend so a third seems likely. Hopefully Lego can come up with a worthwhile successor to the Kwik-E-Mart, but even if they don’t, there’s a good chance I’ll buy it anyways


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